When I first met Cindy during our freshman year of high school, I admired her from afar. Her cool and quiet demeanor, so different from other girls our age, captivated me. She exuded an intelligence devoid of arrogance. Her comments, thoughtful and well-executed, were always able to put others into their place with grace. Though our class schedules would not overlap for years, I was determined to seek her out for friendship.
Cindy displayed a laidback and easygoing nature not shared by most of our peers. Stress over grades, test results, and general anxiety about what these could mean for our educational futures were a near-constant topic of conversation among our Advanced Placement subject classmates; on the surface, Cindy seemed unaffected by it all, confident in her aptitude and ability to get the A. Wanting to be more easygoing myself, her calm attitude and energy inspired me to stress out less about my own grades. But appearance, I was to find, can be deceiving. “I had a lot of anxiety about grades, but I agree I never tried to show it outwardly. I do think there was a lot of anxiety that manifested itself in different ways. Sometimes I would get stomach aches or headaches, and I think that was the way my body would try to process the anxiety.”
Our conversation turned to Cindy’s choice of career. Reflecting on her time in high school, Cindy recalled how narrow and glamorized professions were. The assumption was that all students were college-bound, but not much was provided in terms of real-life application for the subjects we studied. Finding she enjoyed her chemistry classes, Cindy recounted how she decided chemical engineering might be her career of choice. Through a mentoring program, she shadowed a lab scientist at the University of Minnesota, where she again was presented with what she now calls a glamorized view of the work. “They showed me all the cool, fun, stuff. I didn’t see the grunt work, the repetitive experiments and regular day-to-day.”
After applying to colleges with Engineering as her intended major, Cindy found herself in an Engineering 101 course at Johns Hopkins University her freshman year. It was a wakeup call. “This is not for me!” she recalls thinking. “I cannot be sitting in the lab doing the same experiment, over and over again. It’s way too tedious and I’m not going to like it.”
She considered changing course entirely, looking to something like Political Science or other social sciences, but ultimately landed on medicine as her path forward. I was surprised to hear the driving forces behind her decision were job stability and financial security; Cindy never seemed like a driven money-maker, and back in high school would often joke about how she lacked the stamina for such things. When I prodded further, she spoke of how money’s presence (or absence) caused a power imbalance. “People don’t talk about it, they say, ‘oh you should go do whatever you want and chase your dream,’ and I think that’s a very noble pursuit as well, but for me, I’m a practical person as well. Financial independence means I can do what I want, live where I want, and spend my free time as I want. Growing up, I saw that the person who had earning power, they then had decision-making power. I want that decision over my life [as an adult]. It was the same experience for me as a kid, too. My parents would say ‘We can’t do this because we don’t have the money for it.’ Or ‘You can’t buy that because you don’t have your own money.’ [As an adult], money was a way where I could have independence and do what I wanted, and not be beholden to others.”
Johns Hopkins had a great pre-med program, and a lot of support for students who were choosing this path. Besides financial independence, being a physician offered plenty of opportunities for problem solving, as well as working in diverse settings and with diverse groups of people—a far cry from the monotony of lab work. Cindy finished out her time at Johns Hopkins with a double-major in Political Science and Biology and set her sights on medical school. In the spring of her junior year, she took the MCAT and applied to eight to ten schools.
In the fall of her senior year, Cindy was called for interviews at six schools. “I must not have been a good interviewer, because I was only accepted at one (the University of Minnesota) and waitlisted at another (NYU).” Resigning herself to moving back to her home state, Cindy accepted her place and paid her deposit to the University of Minnesota. Then, just before graduation, she was offered a place at NYU. Making the final choice wasn’t easy. The program at the University of Minnesota came with a scholarship, cheaper tuition, and would have meant cheaper cost of living compared to New York City. Ultimately, she chose NYU. In her words, “[It was for] selfish reasons.” She picked a city she had always wanted to experience, over the familiarity of home. Her happiness and excitement was at the center of her decision.
During rotations in her third year of medical school, Cindy decided she would become an internist. She liked the flexibility of the job, and the residency programs where not as competitive as some other fields. Internal medicine also offered further options for specialization in diverse fields if she chose to pursue them. Perhaps the most attractive draw to internal medicine was the relatively short residency period: only three years, compared to some specialties that require five or more. She was placed into the residency program at NYU, getting to spend three more years in a city she “was not finished with yet.” Cindy had enjoyed her educational career, but she was becoming burnt out and ready to put theory into practice. “In order to be a doctor, you need a lot of stamina. I always loved school and learning, but it takes a lot of discipline to get through all these years. I just couldn’t handle it anymore. At some point, it’s enough training.”
Most people associate doctors with large salaries, but Cindy cautioned that this was not the reality right out of the gate. While earning potential does increase after residency, the residency years were a lot of work with relatively low pay. After completing her three years, Cindy took on contract work in locations where finding doctors can be difficult, spending three months in Oklahoma, and two in North Dakota. Having no friends or family in these areas, she found herself working a lot. Contract work pays well, but overall, she did not find it to be a sustainable lifestyle, long-term.
Cindy is currently practicing as a hospitalist (an internal medicine doctor who specializes in the continuity of care for hospitalized patients). She recognized that she was grateful to be able to continue her work during the pandemic, especially during a time when many specialists are being laid off due to a downturn in elective procedures. During our call, she emphasized how much she enjoys working with people. “A big part of what I do is work with different people with different problems, and it’s never boring. I’m talking to patients, to specialists, the cardiologists, the surgeons, nurses, other staff members. Before COVID, I would even get to interact with the families.” A perk of her job as a hospital physician is being able to spend the time needed with patients to give them the best quality of care. “A clinician, they only have a short window of time where they can see you and talk to you, often just 15 minutes. My patients, they’re all in the hospital, I can see them whenever I need to, there’s no set schedule. I can spend the time I need to get more information, or counsel them, or research a question or situation.”
Cindy loves being a doctor. While getting through seven additional years of education and training after college was a challenge, it was the right choice for her life. Now on the other side, she works a job that keeps her learning, interested, and engaged with people. It also offers her the life-flexibility and financial independence she sought, and she can enjoy her free time any way she wants: as close to work-life balance as one can get.